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A New Energy Utility Takes on Climate Change

As Congress debates a U.S. climate bill this fall, and governments around the world are focused on global climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December, a new community-based approach to addressing climate change is taking hold.

The Sustainable Energy Utility, or SEU, is turning the traditional role of an energy utility on its head in a growing number of states, cities and communities.

In a new article published in Delaware Lawyer, Dr. John Byrne of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy and IATP’s Dr. Cecilia Martinez write, “The energy utility of the 20th century was invented to rapidly and continuously increase the energy supply. . .The 21st-century energy utility must have a different focus: to help every citizen and every business conserve energy and, when energy is needed, to utilize the energy gifts of our planet—sunlight, vegetation, the winds and the constant temperature of the earth’s mantle just three meters below the surface.”

But aggregating government, private and philanthropic resources, the SEU differs from traditional utilities by focusing on: 1) a transition to carbon-free energy sources; 2) a reorientation from energy as commodity to energy as a service; 3) the transition to distributed energy infrastructure; and 4) the direct involvement of energy users in energy decisions.

The SEU directly tackles two of the most difficult challenges in shifting our energy system: high upfront capital costs to obtain long-term benefits in efficiency and renewable energy; and the shock of significant energy price increases. Acting as a nonprofit, the SEU coordinates innovative approaches like third-party financing, tax-exempt bonds, revolving funds, federal and state incentives and grants, and funding from other public and philanthropic resources to invest in sustainable energy infrastructure with long-term savings that are shared by the community.

The SEU concept has been catching on and it’s remarkably scaleable. The April 2009 issue of the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society reports on applications of the SEU in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia. In the U.S., Delaware has become the first state in the country to create a state-wide SEU.

In Minnesota, IATP is working with the small rural town of Milan in western Minnesota, and a community organization on the west side of St. Paul, to explore the SEU model.

The Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP is working with West Side Citizens Organization to put an SEU into action in their neighborhood. The west side of St. Paul is a densely populated community of 16,000 in a former industrial zone, with a large percentage of low-income households and people of color. This SEU will focus on energy efficiency and on-site renewable projects.

In Milan, IATP is working with community leaders to develop the first rural-based SEU in the Midwest. Milan, a town of about 350 people, with an average annual household income of about $30,000, will be a model for rural communities in promoting energy affordability, community focused sustainability and attracting energy service businesses to their town.

New policies at the national and international level will set the framework for our collective efforts to stop climate change, but it will take transformative models like the SEU, working on the ground, in communities around the world, to get us there. You can find out more at IATP’s SEU page.

Ben Lilliston